Health care professionals, educators, librarians, and researchers are talking with one another like never before, as Pennsylvanians prepare for the launch of the commonwealth’s new Pennsylvania Research and Education Network (PennREN). A broadband network that will provide 1,600 miles of fiber through 39 Pennsylvania counties, PennREN will be one of the largest networks ever funded by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA).
“As we work to create and share in the opportunities of PennREN, different groups across Pennsylvania have come together in a way that has never happened in the past,” said Jeff Reel, executive director of the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER), the organization overseeing the development of PennREN. “Creating this research and education network is the enabler, but the real jewel is that under KINBER, these institutions and organizations will be able to do things they truly haven’t been able to do before.”
Reel explains that through the shared experience of creating KINBER’s membership, Pennsylvania stakeholders (such as health care institutions, universities, and K-12 organizations) have found that they have a great deal in common – and many of these groups are already beginning to share tools and resources. Partner organizations span the breadth of the Keystone State, from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia – including major hubs like the University of Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and fourteen other universities and businesses.
Portions of PennREN are scheduled to go live in March 2012, and when fully completed in March 2013, the network will span 69 community anchor institutions, providing a radius of connectivity across Pennsylvania in a “bow-tie-shaped” digital interstate.
Board members compare the network to a highway system that connects large-scale research and education hubs with one another. Smaller networks will connect the highway to communities and users outside these major hubs, providing under-served rural communities with access to high-capacity broadband. The completed network will allow these communities to engage in efforts such as high-performance computing, video conferencing, telemedicine, Internet2, collaboration with international colleagues, and more.
“We’re beginning to realize that all organizations involved in this effort—large and small—have something to share,” said Bruce Taggart, vice provost of Information Technology at Lehigh University. “For example, Lehigh has a large, one-of-a-kind collection of electron microscopes, Pittsburgh has a world-renowned supercomputing center, Penn State has its vast science and research data…and all these resources are network accessible if users have the requisite bandwidth (which PennREN will provide). We’re finding out that all these different resources exist, and that we can work together to enable organizations throughout the state to share their benefits with one another."
Until the project began, Pennsylvania had been among the last states in the U.S. without a high-speed broadband network connecting its higher education and health care institutions. Funding for regional expansion was decreased in the mid-1990s, and high-speed connectivity was subsequently concentrated at major urban areas on either side of the commonwealth. Simultaneously, interest in bringing broadband to the community colleges, hospitals, and schools of midland Pennsylvania was continually hindered by high costs involved in connecting the mountainous terrain and sparse rural populations and communities.
All this has changed however, with the implementation of KINBER-a governing organization steeped in collaborative spirit, according to Reel. Newly secured federal stimulus funds have also helped make the shift. “We want communities of users to talk to each other about how they can use this regional network as a way of pulling their different groups together,” he says. “My role is to manage this initiative in a way that allows the communication to happen—and these conversations are taking place— Pennsylvania’s health and education groups are sharing best practices and opportunities right now.”
Wendy Huntoon, director of Advanced Networking at the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, adds that an exciting future prospect is that higher network speeds will allow teleconferencing between regional hospitals and urban hubs, reducing the need for patient transfers. “Imagine how burn victims are treated at rural facilities,” she states. “Right now, a team of doctors has to transfer a patient to a major hospital just to diagnose the degree of the burn. A server that handles teleconferencing could make it possible for hospitals to provide over-the-screen diagnosis.”
As the need for collaborative practices like these continues to expand, the paradigm will change, adds KINBER board member Param Bedi, CIO at Bucknell University. “In this new world the realm of education, like many other fields, is moving toward a model of sharing as an alternative to the more competitive practices of the past, " he states. “We are building a new paradigm of borderless content and borderless delivery for traditional and non-traditional students.”
Through this type of model, students will be able to move across universities and institutions digitally through a “federated trust” system. For example, a university like Bucknell might offer a first-year writing course through a streamlined interface, allowing many types of students in Pennsylvania to participate. Students at other colleges and universities (and even college-bound high school students) would have the opportunity to take the same course remotely from their own location. The system would also allow world-renowned experts to reach classrooms and training venues throughout the state, without the need for travel.
This new digital model will eventually mandate that part of the process for creating and offering education in Pennsylvania is universal and collaborative, observes Reel. “PennREN will be a game changer – a life changer. But getting people to work collaboratively and bringing them to the table to work together—that’s the real promise… and we are using PennREN to make that happen.” ■
KINBER (the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research) is an independent, non-profit corporation created to ensure the needs of all of the members and affiliates are addressed. Its mission is to serve as coordinator for the construction and management of a statewide fiber optic network accessible to a host of educational, research, health care and economic development partners seeking to aggregate services for their members and subscribers at affordable cost. KINBER’s members include: the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of PA, Bucknell University, Carnegie Mellon University, Drexel University, the Hospital and Healthcare Association of Pennsylvania, Lehigh University, the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the PA Commission for Community Colleges, the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Pittsburgh, PAIUnet (K-12 Intermediate Units network), the PA Library Association, Temple University, the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania Public Media, and the Geisinger Health System.
By Heather Herzog and Joseph Weeks